Marking a jubilee year with a surprise trip to China

The Lakeland Time, Minocqua, Wisconsin, Marcy 24, 2006-03

“The Lord works in mysterious ways” is how Sister Pauline Wittry might put it if asked to explain how she received an unexpected blessing earlier this year: a trip to China.

“I felt badly about the reason I was given this opportunity,” she says (a fellow nun fell and broke an ankle and wasn’t able to make the trip), “but I was very grateful I had the opportunity to go. What a wonderful way to mark my jubilee year, when I celebrate 60 years in the Franciscan community.”

Photo caption:  Sister Pauline Wittry: “I saw no antagonism from the ordinary people in China.” Joyce Laabs photo

Sister Pauline, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is retired and lives at Marywood in Arbor Vitae.

A native of Iowa, she joined the community, dedicated to education and health care, in 1943 and took her first vows in 1946. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana, a master’s in psychology at Loyola in Chicago and another master’s in religious education at Mundelin College in Illinois.

She ended her service in clinical and pastoral education in La Crosse in 1992, took a year’s sabbatical, and, at the time she retired to Marywood in 1993, had been working as a chaplain at the La Crosse hospital.

“Our China sisters had a mission in the country until the Communists took over,” Sister Pauline continues. “We had four Chinese sisters there at one time, one has since passed. Viterbo College in La Crosse had a sister school in China and many of the staff at Viterbo traveled there from time to time to teach a course.”

Sister Pauline and Sister Bernadette Prohaska left the United States on Jan. 30, and made stops in Hawaii and Guam, where they were guests of community sisters, before arriving in the Far East.

“We had the opportunity to tour Guam, and I enjoyed this visit as much as the one to China,” she says. “We stayed with Sister Gloria, who had served as superintendent of the Catholic schools for 10 years in Guam and now serves on the Viterbo College board.

“I found the people to be warm and friendly. They love to eat and celebrate. We visited a memorial in Guam that touched our hearts. Inscribed on it were the names of the Americans and Guamanians who were killed during World War II, plus the names of the Guamanians who suffered during the Japanese occupation. Sister Gloria, her brother and her parents were on that list. They had lived in a cave during the occupation. “

From Guam to Hong Kong

From Guam they flew to Hong Kong and stayed with the Chinese sisters in New Territory, on the mainland adjacent to Hong Kong. “There was an American sister, Sister Andre, in the Chinese community who was a blood sister of one of our sisters,” Sister Pauline says.

Hong Kong was like any big city, she adds. She was impressed with the parks and the wonderful flowers and blooming trees. They visited Victoria’s Peak which overlooked the harbor, visited the Tea Garden Museum with all kinds of tea pots and gorgeous gardens, and had dinner at the Jumbo Restaurant.

“The Jumbo Restaurant is a floating restaurant. We reached it on a Sam Pon tug boat, it was an open boat but did have a little cover overhead. The restaurant had live seafood below deck where you could go to pick out your entree,” she says.

They spent four days in the Hong Kong area.

“We toured the Catholic schools where our Chinese sisters teach. Interestingly, they are paid by the government. I don’t know how much religion is taught. Although the government controls the number of students, there are so many enrolled that there are two sessions of school each day taught by two sets of teachers. Classes are taught in Chinese, but English is offered as a subject.

“The Chinese sisters teach in both the grade schools and high schools,” she says. “They wear their habits when they teach, most wearing the short veils, but two or three are in full veil. The grade school is on the grounds of the convent. Although Buddhism is the main religion in the area, there are quite a few Catholics plus Protestants and Anglicans. In addition to the Catholic schools, there are schools run by the Baptists and Anglicans, and also a Christian school.

“The Catholic grade school and convent are enclosed by a fence to keep out those from the Communist-controlled area who would come in and steal,” she says. “Stealing is very high on the list of crimes in Hong Kong. Those that commit this crime feel that the people who live in Kowloon, Hong Kong and New Territory have a lot of money. We never felt at risk and were given no warnings on areas to avoid. We were only told to watch our purses at all times.”

Sister Pauline says they saw lots of signs in English and had no problems not being able to speak Chinese.

Marquette University in Beijing

The two sisters traveled from Hong Kong to Beijing, where they spent a week, staying at Marquette University’s Beijing Center for Chinese Studies on the grounds of the University of International Business and Economics.

Supported by Marquette University in Milwaukee, the center is open to students from any Jesuit college in the U.S. who go there to study. Located in a wing of a university building, it is beautifully decorated in a Chinese theme. University officials often bring visitors to see the area because it is not westernized.

“We were met by two young men from the Bejing Center and stayed at an apartment in the center, leased by Marquette,” Sister Pauline says. “One of the young men was a native of Beijing and one was from from a nearby town. Both spoke English well and acted as our guides and translators.

“My most powerful experience was our trip to the Great Wall. The first part of the Wall was built in 200 BC and is lower than the present wall. It has been rebuilt at various times in the history of China. The present wall was redone in the 1400s during the Ming Dynasty,” Sister Pauline explains. Interestingly, it was built not only to protect the country again invading armies but to keep out immigrants.

“The Wall is 2 1/2 hours from Beijing. You buy a ticket for $8 that includes your entrance fee and a ride on the cable car that takes you part way.

“The vista from the Wall is great. You can see the Wall going on for miles. Beginning at the ocean, it winds around for 50,000 kilometers. There were not huge crowds at the Wall as it was the end of winter. We did see a group from Germany and one from Norway. Also, there were many Chinese visiting the Wall. When you are there you know it is a place that is an important part of history.”

They also visited Tiananmen Square, which Sister Pauline says, is much larger than she thought – two to three city blocks – with one building surrounded by guards and featuring a large picture of Chairman Mao.

“We found the people in Beijing very friendly and helpful. They didn’t seem oppressed in any way. They have a very strong work ethic – long hours and no Sundays off.

“There were two Catholic churches but only one was holding Mass. It was the Northern Cathedral, which was built before the Communists took over. I don’t know if it is under Vatican or Chinese-government control.

Many Catholics in Beijing

“It is a very big church with a large congregation, and it was packed. There are lots of Catholics in Beijing. The singing was excellent and women are part of the service, participating in readings, singing and serving Mass. The first church we went to had some sort of wedding going on and was not holding Mass. We were confused but were helped by a translator who turned out to be a refugee from Iraq.”

The sisters also did some sightseeing, visiting the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Palace Museum.

“The Summer Palace is in western Beijing,” Sister Pauline says. “It sits on 10 to 15 acres overlooking a lake. We met two Chinese girls who, when they found out we were Americans, asked if we’d visited the Palace Museum. When we said ‘no,’ they said they would take us. Both were attending college. One was from northwestern Mongolia. We went with them and found that some of their art work was on display. It was for sale and they wanted us to buy – but we turned them down.”

However, they did do some shopping while in Beijing.

“Because it is my jubilee year, I wanted a navy blue suit and so we set out to get it. First we went to a fabric store and I found a fabric I loved and bought enough for the suit. The cost – $20. Then we found a tailor to make it. The cost – $25. I don’t have it as yet as he had many orders. He will mail it to me.”

Among the impressions she was left with were that:

  • “You could see the pride of the people in their palaces, the Great Wall and their museums.

  • “There is an eagerness to learn English. I suspect it is because of the 2008 Olympic Games that will be held in Beijing. There is lots of construction as they prepare for the event and there are now more signs in English than Chinese.

  • “They think that English will be the world language.

  • “I saw no antagonism from the ordinary people in China.

  • “They do think that all Americans are rich. They get their impressions from American TV and movies.”

What’s next for Sister Pauline? Celebrations. She will go to St. Rose Catholic Church in La Crosse for a Mass and dinner to celebrate her jubilee year and, in May in Superior, she will take part in the Superior Diocese’s honors for sisters serving their jubilee year.

— by Joyce Laabs


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